Rice approves new Operations Research major

New BA degree in CAAM department will become available to students in the fall.

Lovett Hall

The Rice Faculty Senate has approved the creation of a new major and B.A. degree, Operations Research (OR), within the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAAM), that will become available to students in the fall.

In the words of the proposal submitted to the Faculty Senate and approved March 24, the new major will provide “an education that emphasizes models for decision-making in complex systems, and tools for making the best possible decisions.”

“At its core, the OR major provides students with the skills to make decisions in complex systems with significant uncertainty,” said Reginald DesRoches, the Howard R. Hughes Provost and former dean of engineering at Rice. “They will study a combination of engineering principles, computing, statistics and finance, with applications in healthcare, energy, transportation, national security, telecommunications, the environment and finance.”

Many of Rice’s peer institutions have already established programs in OR. At Cornell, for instance, the major is called operations research and industrial engineering, and is the third most popular of its engineering majors. At Stanford, a comparable program, management science and engineering, is also the third most popular major.

“This is long overdue at Rice. Every Fortune 500 company relies on operations research,” said Andrew Schaefer, the Noah Harding Chair and Professor of CAAM. Schaefer is largely responsible for drawing up the 105-page proposal approved by the Faculty Senate.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecast a 25 percent growth in demand for OR graduates in the coming decade. At Rice, enrollment in CAAM 378 – “Introduction to Operations Research and Optimization” – grew from 25 to 67 students per year over the last five years.

The core faculty for the new major will be Schaefer; Illya Hicks, professor of CAAM; and Joey Huchette, assistant professor of CAAM. More faculty is expected to be hired.

Four new courses specific to OR will eventually be added to the CAAM curriculum, with two coming in the fall. OR majors will also be required to take several courses in computer science, statistics and mathematics. “Algorithmic thinking and computer science are much more central to operations research than they are to applied mathematics,” Schaefer said.    

By combining mathematical modeling, statistical analysis and mathematical optimization, Schaefer said, OR aims to devise optimal or near-optimal solutions to complex decision-making problems.

“The set of interesting problems to be worked on by OR students is exploding,” he said.